NORTH SMITHFIELD – With the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval now in his pocket, developer Brian Bucci walked into the Kendall-Dean School ready to answer any questions before one of the last hurdles standing in the way of a wind turbine in North Smithfield: Town Council approval.
After a long discussion about safety practices and the timing of the project, the council voted to retreat into executive session to discuss purchasing open space in Dowling Village for the turbine, only to reappear and give the administration the green light to negotiate two purchase-and-sales agreements so the town and the North Smithfield Land Trust could jointly preserve 40 acres adjacent to the south east corner of Booth Pond.
The town would separately own 2.5 acres of land for the turbine.
This is a $7 million project that will see Bucci build a turbine to supply electricity to tenants of Dowling Village and create power in the range of 3 million to 4 million kilowatt hours per year.
The town will use $525,000 in leftover monies from an already-approved open space bond, repaid over 20 years, using the developer’s lease payments for the turbine.
But the decision did not come without hesitation from both Town Council President David Lovett and Councilor Paul Zwolenski.
“I’m really a little uneasy with this proposal,” Lovett told Bucci. “I know you’re saying you don’t want to lose the money from (the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management) but we’d have to draw up purchase and sales agreements by Sept. 8, and I’m told we basically have to make a decision tonight. I’m not sure the town has had the time to do its proper due diligence and see if it’s really the best decision for the town.”
Lovett added he was nervous the proposal was coming before the council “at the 11th hour,” and he did not feel the council was able to explore the safety and financial aspects of the project with enough depth. DEM agreed to extend the deadline to use the open space grant until Sept. 8.
But Town Administrator Paulette Hamilton told the board she had actually been investigating the concept for six or seven months.
“Well, I didn’t know about it,” Lovett replied, “and I happen to be one of the five people up here that has to make a decision about this.”
Bucci said he understood how some of the councilors felt, noting that if he was in their position, he would want to make sure the town is receiving the maximum benefits, not leaving anything on the table.
“What I can tell you, though, is that you’re going to be leaving $400,000 in DEM money if you don’t approve this project,” the developer said.
The $400,000 DEM Open Space grant to the Land Trust requires a match of at least 50 percent, which would come from the town’s already-approved open space bond.
“Because these projects are so fine-tuned financially, the project will not happen if you do not take advantage of this grant,” Bucci added.
Hamilton said the board needed to seriously consider the plan, which also gained approval from both the zoning and planning boards, because she said DEM is “just waiting to give that money to another community for the same purpose.”
Zwolenski had other concerns, including the “fall zone” or path of damage should the turbine tumble down. “Can we lose $400,000? Yes, we can,” the councilor said. “The town is going to be liable because this turbine will be erected on town property.”
But the developer assured councilors the turbine would come with liability insurance and all bases would be covered. Project engineer Eric Offenberg said the term “fall zone” is misleading because newer turbines are designed to fall apart vertically, unlike a cell or radio tower. Most failures affect the blades, not the towers, he said.
FAA approved the turbine for 496 feet, though Mark DePasquale, chief executive officer of Wind Energy Development LLC, said there were plans for a smaller turbine. More testing needed to be conducted, he said, but he did not want to invest $75,000 in a precise wind study unless he knew the town fully backed the plan.
“This is a $7 million project, and 30 percent of that money is mine,” DePasquale said. “I’m not going to waste my money.”
Lovett said although the council made a decision to authorize the solicitor and administrator to pin down negotiations for purchase and sales agreements, he assured the crowd at Kendall-Dean Monday night he aims to perform more research and discussion on the topic during the next month. The town can void the purchase and sales agreement with no penalty, Town Solicitor Richard Nadeau said.
Phase IV of the Dowling Village project was originally slated for a 76-unit condominium complex.
The Town Council also discussed the two versions of a wind ordinance offered through the Planning Board and the Ordinance Review Committee Monday night, but it was stated the rules of the ordinance would not apply to the Dowling Village turbine because it would be exempt on town-owned land.
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